Book reviews: Dwams by Shane Strachan and May Day by Jackie Kay

If the mark of good poetry is something that rewards re-reading, then there are some very good poems in these two new collections, writes Stuart Kelly

I find poetry by some stretch the most difficult form of writing to review. In part this is because it depends far more on personal taste, and in part it is because there is no single characteristic, quality or feature shared by all poems that we might call “poetic”, with the exception of them being called poems by someone. One of my subjective rules of thumb is the capacity for a work to be re-read, and on that basis there are some good, even very good, poems in these two collections. But there are also moments when I read a line and ask “is this really doing anything, other than taking the sense from one point to another?” If it seems as if my particular preference is for work which is askance, oblique and – dread word – difficult, then I stand guilty as charged. I don’t think poems are instant hits or oysters to be gulped whole and unthinkingly; rather, I expect to put as much effort into reading a poem as the author hopefully put into writing it.

Shane Strachan’s collection is a debut, although he was last year’s champion at the Scots Language Awards and has been Scots Scriever in residence at the National Library. The book mixes ambitious longer form pieces with shorter, mostly lyrical work, as well as two more experimental pieces. Scots is always contentious territory, and the area between phonetic transcription and lexical difference is a mephitic quagmire or clarty bog depending.

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The opening poem, “Dreepin”, is an extended conceit of the testy relationship between Scotland, especially the North East, and the oil industry. This is sexualised, and there is a long tradition of Scots bawdy. What is impressive here, however, is a sensitivity to the more exploitative and coercive aspects. Of course, words like “drilling” and “gushing” can be deployed to smutty effect, but the moral hypocrisy is clear: “the hale time I’ve been seepin – / drip, drap, dreepin – / intae every orifice o yer life, / fae the petrol in yer car / tae the fake tits in yer wife”. Strachan’s “Aiberdeen”, in the epigraph, is a “city o unheard vyces” which is a clever pun. There are suppressed voices, particularly in terms of queer sexuality, but there are also vices.

Authour Shane StrachanAuthour Shane Strachan
Authour Shane Strachan

Strachan uses haiku form fluently, and the echoing sounds in lines such as “Mica will glister / in the darkest o granite / if ye jist let it” is assured. In the “found poems”, recording overheard conversations in bus stops, there is a fractal form, whereby a phrase is excerpted and then expanded into its original context, making the reader revise the kind of speech on which we were eavesdropping.

This strong book bodes well for future work, especially the wryness of “So you start spikkin in yer strongest Doric, / but of course, he asks if ye’r spikkin Gaelic.”

Jackie Kay is, I suppose, at the “needs no introduction” stage of her career. After Fiere in 2011, she published a full length collection, Bantam, in 2017, as the third Scottish Makar. Kay discharged the duty admirably in providing proving accessible, “occasional” poems, and as skilful as they were, such work always has a hint of the ephemeral about it. The ephemeral haunts May Day too, but in a more substantial and satisfactory way.

The title reflects a double bind. The poems are both a celebration and a call for assistance. Many of them deal with the death of Kay’s parents – it seems wholly appropriate to write “parents” rather than “adoptive parents”, and it may well be that an awareness of the ambiguities of words was the spark of poetry, as much as a sense of difference.

Poet and playwright Jackie Kay. Picture: John DevlinPoet and playwright Jackie Kay. Picture: John Devlin
Poet and playwright Jackie Kay. Picture: John Devlin

Of particular note are the poems that excavate colonial history and also distort it. Her paean to Paul Robeson is an insistent work, and rewriting of Glasgow’s motto-lyric particularly apt: “Here’s a theft that grew and grew. / Here’s a debt that’s overdue. / Here’s the clock that ticks and ticks. / Here’s the moment history picks.” It is so subtle as to be almost unnoticed, but the full stops carry force.

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More daring is a reckoning with Burns and slavery, and the troublesome reality that the author of “The Slave’s Lament” seriously considered being the slave overseer. This is well done, especially the remix poems, although John Glenday and Reinhard Behrens constructed the magnificent installation, “Burns Out of His Box” nearly 20 years ago.

It is the elegies that are most impressive here. Elegy perfectly suits Kay’s skills. They must be transparent and yet lingering, they must be affecting without being mawkish or obviously sentimental. The best of these utterly cut to the quick. All I can really say is yes, that is exactly what it feels like: “I cannot / shift the feeling that someone / has been close; some unseen / has touched my hair as I nearly dreamed / as I nearly went, as I nearly fell off.” “All of that was for all of this, / and now you’re on your tod”. Sometimes there are strange synchronicities. Tod, meaning alone in Kay, meaning, as in Strachan’s concrete poem, a fox, meaning, in German, death.

Dwams, by Shane Strachan, Tapsalteerie Press, £10; May Day by Jackie Kay, Picador, £10.99